Why do F1 cars keep running out of fuel?

F1 Technology

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2012When it comes to running a racing car, allowing it to run out of fuel is a failure of the most fundamental kind. Yet F1 teams run into exactly that kind of problem with surprising frequency.

Already this season we’ve seen Mark Webber run out of fuel during qualifying in China. This was the second such failure for Red Bull in six races. And in Malaysia Lewis Hamilton’s race was dominated by a pressing need to save fuel.

How are teams managing to get a seemingly simple part of going racing wrong? And why are the drivers apparently incapable of keeping an eye on their fuel gauges for themselves?

An old problem

F1 teams have long understood the value of not putting a drop more fuel in a car than is necessary. More fuel means more weight which means slower lap times. When huge sums are being spent in the pursuit of fractions of a second, no one wants to undo that work by needlessly sloshing in a few extra kilos of fuel.

That is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Lotus owner Colin Chapman was famed for his mania for saving weight. He took the practice of putting as little fuel in as possible to such lengths that when he wasn’t looking his mechanics would add a few extra litres to ensure the car reached the chequered flag.

They weren’t always successful in their covert endeavours. At Monza in 1967 Jim Clark’s Ford Cosworth DFV ran dry on the final lap after he had fought his way up from the rear of the field. Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti were also victims of Chapman’s overzealous weight saving which sometimes extended to taking fuel out of the cars while they sat on the grid.

Working out race fuel loads

Start, Sepang, 2013Today that practice is forbidden by the rules on safety grounds, which means teams must work out how much fuel to put in their cars before they send them to the grid. Making that decision is not as simple as working out the rate of fuel consumption per lap and multiplying by the number of race laps.

Variations in climactic conditions can have a strong effect on fuel consumption. In wet conditions cars lap more slowly and therefore use less fuel. And teams will not know in advance of a race exactly how wet it’s going to be.

This gives some insight into the difficulties Mercedes had in Malaysia. As drivers headed to the grid half an hour before the start the track was so wet several of them skated off at turn four.

But in the race it dried up quickly – everyone was on slick tyres by lap nine. Not long after that the first radio messages to Hamilton urging him to save fuel were played on the team radio channel.

Whatever the conditions, the desire to put in as little fuel as possible remains pressing. Reports suggest some cars have gone to the grid this year with as much as 10% less fuel than they need to do the race flat-out. That’s a potential weight saving of 15kg on F1’s most punishing tracks for fuel consumption.

Teams deliberately under-fuel their cars because they expect their drivers won’t be able to go flat out at times during the race. For example, they may get stuck in traffic – this is especially likely for those in the midfield.

Qualifying

While this explains the incentive for under-fuelling cars in the races, it’s in qualifying sessions that we’ve seen the most extreme examples of cars being underfuelled. The ban on in-race refuelling at the end of 2009 means drivers are now running their lowest possible fuel loads in all three parts of qualifying.

To work out how little fuel needs to be in the car before the engine starts to cough, teams will often deliberately run their cars out of fuel during pre-season testing and then measure how much is left in the tank and collector.

Even so on several occasions since we’ve seen drivers run out of fuel during their qualifying runs. It happened to Lewis Hamilton in Canada in 2010 and again in Spain last year. Sebastian Vettel had the same drama at Abu Dhabi last year and, most recently, the same happened to Mark Webber in China.

Varying explanations were given for these failures, sometimes in the hope of avoiding the dreaded exclusion from qualifying (as Hamilton managed in 2010). But they shared the root cause of the team making an error in fuelling the cars during the high-pressure, time-limited modern qualifying format.

Where’s the fuel gauge?

Why can a F1 driver not tell for themselves whether their car has insufficient fuel? After all, every road car is fitted with a gauge which alerts the driver if this is the case.

The shape and construction of an F1 car’s fuel tank makes this impossible. This is due to the severe forces an F1 car experiences which causes the fuel to move around. Engineers need to control this movement – “slosh” – to keep the car’s centre of gravity low and to ensure a consistent supply of fuel to the engine.

“You can’t just put a dipstick in there,” explains F1 technology expert Craig Scarborough. “At Spa the fuel is actually at the top of the fuel tank as you crest the rise coming out of Eau Rouge!”

This video illustrates the forces at work on a fuel load in an F1 car’s tank:

http://youtu.be/PKoOeNUoNHU?t=42s

F1 fuel tanks feature a series of chambers to keep the fuel in a position where the fuel pump can collect it. This network of chambers controls the fuel ‘slosh’ during acceleration, braking and cornering. Trapdoors in the chambers allow the fuel to travel down but not back up.

This image of a 2008 BMW-Sauber F1.08 shows the fuel tank and the horizontal divides within it which help control the position of the fuel:

BMW-Sauber F1 car sliced in half

But it’s not a foolproof system. In Italy last year Jenson Button retired when one of the trapdoors became jammed in his McLaren’s fuel tank.

Degree of risk

Although they are unable to directly measure how much fuel is in their car at any given time, teams can gather readings from other sources. For example, adding fuel to the car should cause a corresponding increase in the load on the suspension.

Once the car is lapping, the team will study the rate at which fuel is being fed to the engine to calculate how much is left – and whether they’re using it too quickly. The driver has some degree of flexibility to alter the rate of fuel consumption by selecting different engine maps and by altering their driving style. Hence radio messages telling them to “lift and coast” as they approach their braking points.

Fuelling an F1 car is a delicate balance of risk versus reward. The penalty of coming to an early stop is high, but in a sport that’s fixated on performance the temptation to shave a few tenths off by under-fuelling the car is great.

There will always be those like Chapman who are more inclined to push the envelope than their rivals are. It’s telling that some teams have had their fingers burnt more than once – Red Bull and McLaren, for example – while others have avoided this kind of trouble.

Like a driver judging a risky overtaking move or weighing up whether to back off for a high-speed corner, it’s another of the high-stakes decisions at the heart of Formula One.

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94 comments on Why do F1 cars keep running out of fuel?

  1. dee danga said on 29th April 2013, 16:18

    This was the best write up this year keep it up!! I learnt a lot

  2. I found this particularly interesting:

    “At Spa the fuel is actually at the top of the fuel tank as you crest the rise coming out of Eau Rouge!”

    It just goes to show the severity of the forces going through an F1 car in demanding corners such as Eau Rouge! That just heightens my appreciation for the engineering that goes into the cars – they are truly wonders of design.

    • tmax (@tmax) said on 29th April 2013, 18:34

      make one wonder what kind of negative health effects does it have on a driver. Drivers like Barichello who has race more than 350 races must have strained his body a lot.

      @KeithCollantine Do you know who is the oldest living F1 Driver today ? just curious.

      • @tmax – I assume you mean in terms of any, not just ones currently racing? There’s an article on that here: Paul Pietsch sadly passed away on the 31st of May 2012 but he had celebrated his 100th birthday in that time! The current oldest living driver in accordance with the article is therefore Robert La Caze, who is currently 96!

        Obviously in the good ‘ol days if you didn’t die in a crash you could last quite well! This is by drivers who have participated in Formula 1 championship events since 1950 I should make clear.

        • tmax (@tmax) said on 29th April 2013, 20:52

          @vettel1 Interesting info Max. Thanks a lot. Looks like if they come out unhurt they have a very good life span later. Maybe all the strict diet and rigorous exercises must be keeping them healthy for a very long time.

          Again there might be another aspect to that. The F1 machines of today are more demanding to the body in terms of G Forces because of their sheer speeds compared to the ones of the 50s. Added to that the increasing number of races and the globe trotting from end to end must be a real strain for the drivers. Only time will tell how the current generation fares.

          • @tmax yea I’m in agreance with the second part: even though races were usually longer, with more demanding tracks and trickier cars to drive the forces going through the body were nowhere near what they are today: the compression through Eau Rouge must mash the driver’s organs! The jet lag and just sheer physical effort these days I’d say is also much more pronounced, as well as the much more fierce competition nowadays.

            Again though as you’ve said, the training regimes etc must keep them incredibly fit and healthy, so I wouldn’t actually be surprised if that counteracted the adverse affects and actually prolonged the lifespan relative to the average!

  3. tmax (@tmax) said on 29th April 2013, 16:49

    @KeithCollantine Wonderful Article Keith. I did not realize it was this complex !!!!

  4. AdrianMorse (@adrianmorse) said on 29th April 2013, 17:24

    Slightly off-topic, but I think the standard penalty for underfueling is strange and unfair.

    If I remember correctly, Hamilton got away with stopping on his in-lap in Canada 2010 because there wasn’t actually any rule forbidding it. Since then, Charlie Whiting admonished the teams not to let that happen again, and I suppose at some point the rule for making it back on your own strength was added to the rule book. No penalty was stated, however, so I was both shocked and outraged last year in Spain when it turned out the penalty was exclusion from the session.

    I think the rules should distinguish between whether or not there is enough fuel left for a fuel sample. I can understand that the FIA does not want any problems with illegal fuels, so if there is less than 1 litre in the tank, the car will be excluded from the session. If, however, the driver parks the car in order to be able to provide a fuel sample, a grid penalty should be sufficient. Usually, running out of fuel is the cause of some clumsiness in the pit lane, or some fault with the refueling system, and I don’t see why that should be penalized so harshly. Certainly a five-place grid penalty should be enough to take away any incentive from the teams to plan to park the car after the qualifying lap.

    The reason why I find the current penalty unfair is first because it is too harsh. Currently, parking your car in qualifying is equivalent, in terms of penalty received, to lying in wait for a competitor and running him off the track.

    The second reason I find it unfair is that, when progressing from Q2 to Q3 (or 1 to 2), cars can go out as light as possible as long as they make it back to the pits. Once back inside, the fuel can be replenished and no-one will ever know that the car was at some point carrying less than 1 litre of fuel. In fact, there I can see incentive for teams to run their cars too light.

    • @adrianmorse – I always thought simply deleting that laptime would be sufficient, so say Hamilton’s pole lap wouldn’t have been valid and he would’ve started lower down consequently. Or even just exclude them from that particular session, so they are sorted by their Q2 time. I did think total disqualification was very harsh indeed absolutely.

  5. OmarR-Pepper (@omarr-pepper) said on 29th April 2013, 18:01

    I remember when BAR (or was it just Honda?) had the “extra tank” to run under official weight and just at the final pitstop they filled the extra tanks and closed them, so the car passed the FIA revision. Were Button and Sato got rid of points?

    • anon said on 29th April 2013, 18:55

      After it was discovered at the San Marino GP in 2005, the team were stripped of 3rd and 5th place in that race and banned from competing for the next two races. They were, to a certain extent, quite lucky though – the FIA initially considered kicking them out for the entire season because they considered it to be a major violation of the regulations, but BAR were able to argue the penalty down to a temporary ban.

  6. spoutnik (@spoutnik) said on 29th April 2013, 19:37

    … and why not then force a fixed amount of fuel? Racing while having to save fuel is ridiculous :(

    • @spoutnik because the teams will all have different levels of fuel consumption depending on engines, aerodynamics, engine maps, grip levels, tyre degredation…

      Quite simply, that’s not really possible. What I think is a good idea is what is now happening in 2014 i.e. you are allowed 100kg for a race distance, so if the engine etc is more efficient you could probably run less fuel/slightly higher engine level.

  7. jpowell (@jpowell) said on 29th April 2013, 20:01

    For me a team under fuelling its cars because they expect them to be driven far below their potential is a complete anathema for F1.Where does anyone get the idea that this is racing . If the cars had to carry 10% more fuel than the maximum required to compete at 100% throughout the race ,they would be self penalised for going slowly.

    • @jpowell but that’s how it’s always been (although maybe not quite as much as now) as is evident from the Lotus anecdote in the article. Really, the likelihood of them having to slow for wet weather, a safety car, traffic, mechanical conservation etc. is quite high. Of course though it could be reduced by using slightly more durable tyres!

  8. Fisha695 (@fisha695) said on 29th April 2013, 20:18

    Ya know if they’d just allow refueling again teams wouldn’t have to worry about this (as much).

    • Michael Brown (@) said on 29th April 2013, 22:43

      Boring

    • Baremans (@baremans) said on 30th April 2013, 12:06

      Unsafe and costly… isn’t going to happen.

      Reducing fuel consumption will be thé main fuel-related development for years to come. It’ll be reduced to 100kgs (from 160kgs) next year. So that’s already a lot less difference in weight to work with. And this evolution will continue for the years to come. Until we all start driving on water or batteries.

      • Fisha695 (@fisha695) said on 30th April 2013, 16:35

        Explain to me how it is unsafe when there are literally Millions of racing cars that get refueled multiple times during a race each weekend around the world?

        You wanna talk about safety, holding 17 gallons (NASCAR tank size) of a highly flammable explosive liquid on the car & having to refuel multiple times during the race is a heck of a lot safer then having 60some gallons on it.

  9. pSynrg (@psynrg) said on 29th April 2013, 21:45

    Excellent stuff – it’s exactly these risks and the extreme margins the teams gambol with that are the life blood of F1.

    No matter what the tyres are doing, no matter how artificial the latest DRS. Factors such as these always remain real.

    Quite the timely article with the excellent piece from Renault describing their fuel system on the official F1 site.

  10. Prof Kirk (@prof-kirk) said on 29th April 2013, 23:30

    @keithcollantine

    ever thought about composing a years worth of blogs into a book?

  11. Irejag (@irejag) said on 30th April 2013, 4:15

    I am not a mechanic or a scientist so for me the simplest answer is usually the best one. With that said, as a new rule every car starts Q1 with a full tank of gas… that seems pretty logical and simple to me. But then again when does any league or sport do anything based on logic?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 30th April 2013, 7:50

      @irejag That would take us straight back to the days when drivers would do a series of “fuel burn” laps to lighten their cars before trying for a flat-out qualifying lap. Given that F1 is currently moving towards a more fuel-efficient formula, I doubt there’ll be much support for that.

      • Irejag (@irejag) said on 1st May 2013, 1:26

        In addition to my previous comment, you could also put a rule in that states a driver may only do a certain number of laps per qualifying session. That way you prevent drivers from doing “fuel burn” laps and we will see lap times in qualifying that will reflect the starting lap times of the race itself. Or if you want to be really extreme, get rid of qualifying all together. Have one prior to the start of the first race, and then each race after that the drivers start in the position in which they finished the previous race. (I am not a fan of that idea, but it would certainly make things interesting).

        • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 2nd May 2013, 21:02

          @irejag there’s another major problem with that though, it makes it all but impossible to recover from a mistake. That’s not an issue if you purposely chose to go out for just one lap in the dying minutes (as Vettel has done numerous times to great effect), but it being forced upon you I don’t think is the correct way to go about it.

          • Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 2nd May 2013, 21:03

            Also, I rather like the fact the set-up has to be a comprimise between one-lap pace on low fuel and race pace with tanks brimming: it adds a nice extra element of strategy!

          • Irejag (@irejag) said on 3rd May 2013, 5:21

            I get what you are saying, however I said a “certain” amount of laps per session. In my mind, “certain” would mean that they have to be on track from start to finish. F1 is in the business of entertaining us and as far as I am concerned that means that the drivers should be out there racing. I believe that it was in Malaysia this year that we had to wait until the final few minutes before the cars came out in Q1… I am sorry but that is not entertaining. These teams make millions in revenue, and so as far as I am concerned we deserve every single minute of their track time… so go on the track and entertain! Sorry Max Jacobson.. I am not trying to argue with you, it is just that you gave me a chance to vent. lol.

  12. Witsinfr (@witsinfr) said on 30th April 2013, 7:25

    I’ve often wondered whether any team had tried using an inflatable ‘bag’ in the tank to stop the fuel sloshing – give it positive pressure (but not so much that it is overinflated), then as the fuel reduces the bag expands to fill the space.

  13. katederby (@katederby) said on 30th April 2013, 11:53

    Very informative article, particularly since I have a particular interest in this area.

  14. smokinjoe (@smokinjoe) said on 30th April 2013, 14:46

    Well if team want to run lightest car to maximize speed does the driver weight comes into play ,lets say if webber is 10Kg heavier then grosjean then its kinda extra weight added to the car ..does that matter?

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